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The Neoliberal Assault on Academia

The neoliberal sacking of the universities runs much deeper than tuition hikes and budget cuts, notes Barkawi.

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 US universities to consider 
positive discrimination

In US terms, post-tenure review is an imperfect analogy for the salutary and depressing tale of the RAE. Invented by Margaret Thatcher's government, the basic idea is to rank all the departments in any one discipline and channel funding to the "best" departments, while  cutting funding to the rest. The RAE was an assault on the basic idea of a university - the universe of knowledge - since universities would lose poor performing departments.

In neoliberal speak, this may sound very sensible. But imagine what happens to, say, physics and biology students, when, as the  University of Exeter did, the chemistry department is shut down. Who will teach them chemistry?

More to the point, how do you judge which is "best"? For this, the RAE needed the willing and active collaboration of the professoriate.

When I first held a UK academic post in the relatively early days of the RAE in the late 1990s, academics talked about it as if it were just some form they had to fill out, an annoying bureaucratic exercise that would not really affect us. Others, academic "leaders", saw it as an opportunity to do down their colleagues in other universities and channel funds to their own departments.

Neoliberal assault on the universities 

In this way, the professors themselves helped to administer and legitimate a Thatcherite budget-cutting exercise. Worse, they participated in what they know to be a fiction: that you can rank scholarly research like you can restaurants or hotels so as to determine which departments have the "best" faculty.

Little more than a decade later - and now known as the Research Excellence Framework (REF) - this five-yearly exercise completely dominates UK academic life. It determines hiring patterns, career progression, and status and duties within departments. It organises the research projects of individual scholars so as to meet arbitrary deadlines. It has created space for a whole class of paid consultants who rank scholarship and assist in putting together REF returns.

UK academics regularly talk about each other's work in terms of whether this or that book or article is "three star" or "four star". Again, for those attuned to neoliberal ways of thinking, this may appear natural. But remember that the entire point of university research is conversation and contestation over what is true and right. In the natural sciences, as in the social sciences and humanities, one person's truth is another person's tosh, and valid knowledge emerges from the clash of many different perspectives.

Somehow, UK professors have become intimately bound up in administering and legitimating a government-run exercise that now shapes more of university life than they themselves do. They have actively ceded their power.

US faculty need to keep this travesty in mind.

Something as apparently innocuous as an accreditation agency demanding that syllabi be written in a particular format, or majors justified in a particular way, can wind up empowering university management to intimately regulate teaching. A meaningless buzzword in the mouth of a dean, such as "new majority student", might in practice help legitimate the hiring of less qualified faculty. After all, if "teacher ownership of content" is old fashioned, why do you need to hire a professor who can create his or her own course?

The bottom line of the neoliberal assault on the universities is the increasing power of management and the undermining of faculty self-governance. The real story behind MOOCs may be the ways in which they assist management restructuring efforts of core university practices, under the smiley-faced banner of "open access" and assisted in some cases by their "superstar", camera-ready professors.

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